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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shooting the 70s

From the Film Cans Dept.: Every so often, I've written about or reviewed movies. I'm ill-qualified to do so, having seen too many films made before I was born, and thus having an inordinate fondness for black and white. For reasons I've forgotten, I wrote the essay below for Metroland in early 1988, recalling a decade part of which I worked as a movie-theater usher.


Marlon Brando in
Last Tango in Paris
THE MOVIEGOING MIND WAS switched on and then off as casually as a light switch at each end of the 70s; both times it was a sci-fi epic, but one was a thought-provoking, ground-breaking masterpiece; the other was a brainless, assembly-line piece of twaddle. Film fans are still feeling the result as a new generation of audience demands only similarly witless entertainment.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke fashioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey an unprecedentedly realistic look at spaceflight while telling a story that raised many questions and kept smugly silent about the answers. The year was 1968, but 2001 really began the 70s for filmmakers.

It saluted a trend toward independence of thought that already was set in motion by the death of the studio system, moribund through the 60s. Along with innovative late-60s pictures like The Graduate and Easy Rider, it heralded a celebration of youth and dreams.

And its downright psychedelic ending was just right for those whose encampment in Bethel, NY, was celebrated in the three-hour documentary Woodstock, released in 1970.

As the era of protest waned, kids examined themselves with Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) and American Graffiti (1974). A search for identity is often conducted in the past; such nostalgia was rife in Peter Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show, a 1971 release that took us to Larry McMurtry's Texas in the 50s, and Paper Moon, going even farther back, to an early 30s midwest.

A sense of craft informed many of the smaller pictures of the period: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was as remarkable a character study as had been committed to film in a long time; similarly, two young actors named Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro gave wonderful, gentle performances in a tear-jerker titled Bang the Drum Slowly.

The freedom to tell a story without Hayes Office moralizing gave us everything from Cops and Robbers, in which Joseph Bologna and Cliff Gorman outwit the force, the Mob and Wall Street, to The Exorcist, in which little was left to the imagination.

This was carried forth in terms of violence and sex, too, enough to give us Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which imagined a ghastly extension of already-evident problems, and the most hotly-debated movie of 1972, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, in which this amorality was seen in the context of one self-destructive relationship. Both movies carried an X rating, something that would soon be seen as disastrous at the box office.

Not that the X rating vanished: in 1973, Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat became the chic thing to see – and legally impound, with the resultant rulings helping establish an “adult film” industry that, while shackled to masculine fantasy, produced a few filmmakers who tried to produce a product with the quality of mainstream movies. While the industry survives, it's dominated by videotape and few of the specialty theaters remain.

There still was room to experiment with a fairly big budget; no other decade could have given us Francis Coppola's Godfather epic, a quality piece of work that won mainstream acceptance.

Many filmmakers concentrated on disturbing the audience. Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge, to a cynical script by Jules Feiffer, was an unremittant look at male games-playing; the same could also be said of William Friedkin's The Boys in the Band.

Two of the bigger stars, Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, experimented with unusual roles in (respectively) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Straight Time, but others played it safe and won, as Robert Redford and Paul Newman could boast of The Sting.

Was it pent-up resentment of Hollywood that brought out the bleakness that informed so many films of the period? Only by the late 60s were blacklisted writers and actors getting work, as celebrated by Martin Ritt's 1976 The Front, which gave Woody Allen his only starring role in a non-Allen-related film.

Allen himself summed up a certain 70s persona as he grew from nebbish (Bananas; Play It Again, Sam; Sleeper) to a major filmmaking force (Annie Hall, 1977).

But it wasn't all art. This was the decade of the disaster: in the air (Airport), on the ground (The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and even in the water (The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws).

You didn't have to stand in line to see a movie. In 1940, about 85 million people went to the movies each week in this country; by 1970 it dropped to 15 million. The big theaters – palaces built during the early decades of cinema – were closed down or split into those tiny boxes that pass for movie houses now.

And the biggest sleeper of the 70s became the biggest success in cinema's history, as George Lucas' 1977 Star Wars began an era of dime-novel escapism, returning us to the black-and-white morals that allow such cartoon characters as Sylvester Stallone to become film heroes and such epics as Raiders of the Lost Ark to be confused with good moviemaking.

Metroland Magazine, March 10, 1988

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